Saturday, February 14, 2015

Adjusting One’s Expectations

Scott D. Parker

First off: have you read Alex’s post from Thursday? You should. My response boils down to this: I am a writer. End of story.

Two phrases have been going through my mind this week. The first is a tag line from the Self-Publishing Podcast: "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." The other is the more internal voice: when you're just starting out, you have to understand your limitations and adjust your expectations.

The do-it-yourself mantra is pretty obvious. I’m on the final touches of readying WADING INTO WAR for publication this month. For all of you who have already done this, I’m now in the decidedly unsexy part of the process: reviewing, tweaking, checking the spelling and punctuation, and all the other stuff like that. I spent my off-day yesterday tinkering with Scrivener. I’ve used the program for years--and highly recommend it--but I have never had the reason to use all the compile features. It took me all morning yesterday but I finally, FINALLY!, figured out all the buttons and boxes to check and uncheck in order to produce the desired type of ebook. I ended up writing my own procedures that I am now able to follow with few headaches. I count that as a win.

Experience. The more you do something, the better at it you get. I had to remember that as I kept updating and building the website. It was in this arena where my second phrase really took hold.

There’s a website I see in my head. I know that I’ll ultimately get there. I’m not there yet. I very much want it to be where it’ll ultimately be in a few months’ time, but I simply don’t have the experience in HTML to do it right now. Moreover, I don’t have the time to learn right now. Day job. Home life. Reading some. Watching something. Writing new book. Editing next book. There’s a lot to do and only 24 hours in a day.

So I have had to adjust my expectations on how to structure the website. I’ve got it to a place where I’m okay with it, at least as a beta release. But it’s a tad frustrating to know where you want to go, know that you’ll eventually get there, but that the road will be long. At least, however, I’m on the road.

For that, I’m quite content.

Best Podcast of the Week

Simon Whistler’s Rocking Self-Publishing, Episode 81 with Chris Fox. This interview can make the dreams swell up big in your heart. Lots and lots of great material in this episode, especially on how you can apply the startup mentality to independent publishing.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

When did "crime writer" become a bad thing?

Fair warning: I’m tired, cranky and fighting a cold. Buckle up.

Topic sentence: Being a crime writer is not lesser-than nor is it easier-than any other kind of writing. If you think that, you’re being elitist/a snob/wrong. 

Real talk: I’m not even going to link to the story that spurred this blog post because it involves a writer I really, really like and it’s not about that specific story - but a few moments over the last few years that make this more than a one-off thing. It is a trend, even!

Why is it cool for writers to slag on genre writing? Or to distance themselves from crime fiction because they perceive it as a lower/easier/less “important” form?

It’s not. No argument shall be brokered there. It just isn’t. Read books by Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Daniel Woodrell, Megan Abbott, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, James Ellroy, etc. (you get the picture). Tell me that’s not literature or literary or writer-ly. If you don’t think it is, then hey, you’re wrong. That’s it.

You know what argument does matter? The only argument that should matter? Good vs. bad. Is the book good? Did it make you think? Did it turn you on? Did it make you mad? Did it surprise you? Did it force your brain to move in a different way? Did you put that book down and sigh because the last thing you wanted to do was take a break from reading it? That’s good. The rest is organizational and labeling that exists as a guide not a hierarchy. One is not better than the other.

If you think you’re slumming by writing “genre” fiction, or you think you can make it rain from the advance you get from cranking out that easy, commercial crime novel so you can focus on more “important” stuff...well, good luck.

I’m not trying to be the great equalizer here. Mainly because I don’t need to be: writing is hard, no matter what kind of fiction you’re putting together, however you choose to label or describe it. Also, by implying that one type of writing is harder/better/cooler than another, you’re feeding the trolls. You’re adding bricks to the genre walls that keep different voices apart and constrict the process. To me, genre is a guide - a suggestion that these other books might be like this one. Not as a ranking system. If you’re using it as the latter, you’re doing it wrong.

Allow me a moment of hippie philosophy: We’re all in this together. We’re all pouring our souls into the work we put out, and those that aren’t tend to fade away quickly. Writers have a hard enough time trying to rise above genre labels or expectations - why make it harder?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Again With the Politics

by Holly West

Regular readers of this blog might know that for a long time now I've made it a policy not to post about politics or controversial subjects on social media. It's not about hiding anything about myself: I'm open about my political leanings (liberal) and the fact that I'm an atheist. I have other reasons for avoiding controversial subjects and that works for me. For some writers, however, posting about politics and such is a part of their author platform, and while they may alienate potential readers, friends, or family now and then, it seems to work for them.

I'll cite an example. I have an author friend on Facebook who posts quite often about politics. We've only met a couple of times in person but have had a good conversation or two--I think he's a pretty cool guy. That said, I disagree with most of his opinions with regard to politics (and he posts A LOT of them). When we first became Facebook friends, it got tedious and I contemplated "silencing" him (sounds so ominous, doesn't it), but in the end I decided that his opinions are welcome in my feed.

Why? Because his arguments, in the main, are well thought out and foster meaningful discussion. I often learn something from his posts, even when I disagree with his positions. If you're going to post about politics, people, this is how you do it.

I have another author friend whose political leanings are much closer to my own who also posts frequently about politics. Like Friend One, cited above, she doesn't just post provocative links and move on--she actually engages in conversation and provides informed commentary. The comments such posts receive run the ideology gamut but the conversation is usually lively and mostly intelligent. Not surprisingly, her novels have strong components of liberal politics and quests for social justice. Her posts on social media reflect that.

Conversely, I recently "friended" an author on Facebook whose political posts have drastically lowered my opinion of her. Previously, I'd had friendly conversations with her in person and online, and I regarded her as an intelligent and thoughtful woman. Unfortunately, she frequently posts shallow, even ignorant, political rants that have pretty ruined her credibility with me. By all accounts, she's an accomplished member of her non-writing profession, so kudos to her, but her Facebook posts make me cringe.

Obviously, I don't expect every conversation on Facebook or Twitter to have substance. Clearly, not--most of you've probably seen my own posts. I don't even expect every political discussion to be inoffensive or well thought out. But the fact is that when a "friend" continuously shares idiotic memes, forwards simplistic and factually questionable anecdotes of dubious authorship, and posts links to "news" stories that are hopelessly partisan and divisive, I can't help but form a negative opinion of the person, or at the very least, question their capacity for critical thinking.

I'm not saying an author (or anyone else) shouldn't share opinions or challenge people with controversial subjects on social media and elsewhere. However, when you're tempted to post about such things, I would simply suggest that you consider A) whether whatever it is adds anything meaningful to the conversation and B) whether it's worth alienating or offending one or all of the three "Effs:" Friends, Family, and Fans. Because whether they comment or not, they're probably sitting at their computer screens, quietly passing judgement (or is it only me that does that)?

Maybe that doesn't matter to you, but as George Costanza so aptly put, "we're trying to live in a civilization here, people." Pursuant to that quest, I try to resist being offensive even if I'm not always successful. What I'm really saying is that I have no wish to offend just to offend, and I tend to think twice before I post about something controversial.

I'm curious. If you post controversial or political posts on social media, do you think of it as part of your author platform? Or are you just being yourself?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

There Is No Such Thing As Appropriation of Voice

Back in the dark ages (1980s) when I was at Concordia University studying English Lit and Creative Writing there was a lot of debate about “Cultural Appropriation” or “Appropriation of Voice.” It seemed like a silly discussion to me – a writer creates fictional characters. Every kind of character; men, women, old, young, aliens, talking dogs, whatever.
And yet.
At the time one of the main drivers of the debate was W.P. Kinsella.* For many years Kinsella published short stories written in the first person narrated by Silas Ermineskin, about life on a First Nations reserve in Alberta, Canada. I thought many of the stories were really good, really funny and tragic and very human. I liked Silas and his friend Frank Fencepost was often hilarious. It was fun hanging out with them.
But after many of these story collections (and a few national awards) there were a few complaints of cultural appropriation. Kinsella rejected the criticism on the grounds that a writer has the license to create anything he chooses and called the term "cultural appropriation" the nonsense of Eastern Canadian academics. And I agreed with him.
And yet.
As this article points out, even though the non-natives writing native stories were “doing this to foster and promote a greater understanding of Aboriginal people and their histories. They can't do that forever and ever because it [becomes] the same old missionary situation.” 
And we didn’t even have the term “white privilege” back then.
Still, I don’t believe in appropriation of voice, I believe writers create fictional characters of all kinds. Lots of non-native writers in Canada have Native characters in their writing.
I think the reason the issue has died out, in this case, is because there are now many more Native writers being published in Canada than there were when Kinsella was publishing his stories so it’s less of a “missionary situation.”
And yet.
There is one kind of book which seems to be popular these days which I realized I have a personal prejudice against, my own appropriation of voice issue. I suppose it’s my own problem and I need to overcome it, but when I see a book written by a middle-aged man and the story is told from the point of view of a young woman I’m very reluctant to pick it up.
It’s my own baggage, I get that. But it kind of feels like the Native issue. It kind of feels like a missionary situation. Literature was dominated by men for a long time. At a literary conference I was at recently one of the panels addressed the question, “Is the default voice in literature male?” It could have been “still male.” If you go by how many more books by men are reviewed then books by women (the VIDA count keeps track) then the answer seems to be yes. And now there are all these young “kick-ass” women created by men. Maybe we need a literary equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
And in Canadian crime fiction we have what seems to be an odd situation. There are a number of bestselling women writers who write from a male point of view and a bunch of bestselling male writers who write from a young female point of view.
But there aren’t many Canadian women writing bestsellers with female protagonists.
So, thank goodness for Hilary Davidson and I hope soon Robin Spano is a bestseller.
And although it’s not really being marketed as crime fiction, Elizabeth de Mariaffi’s debut novel, The Devil You Know is a fantastic story with a young female protagonist.
The story follows twenty-one year old Evie Jones, a reporter for a newspaper in Toronto in the early 1990s. As she says, when you read an article and in addition to the reporter’s byline there is the line, “with additional files from,” that’s her.
This is a novel that uses many real, horrific events in the story and it could easily have become exploitive. One of the reasons it doesn’t, I think, is because of how feminine it is. The way the narrator talks about the silences and the darknesses in her daily life and the way she identifies with the victims, slipping in a casual, “I could so easily be those girls,” that it feels so natural.
This isn’t a book about justice or the search for justice or some detective trying to find the guilty man.
The Quill and Quire review said, “In her engaging, witty debut novel, Elisabeth de Mariaffi challenges the mainstream tropes of the detective and suspense genres by placing sexual violence along the spectrum of intimidation, harassment, and fear that women experience on a daily basis.” And that’s true. Sort of. I really liked how the novel did place the sexual violence along that spectrum but I think it may only be a Canadian review that would see this book as challenging the mainstream tropes. Those tropes have been challenged so much by Megan Abbott and Denise Mina and Tana French and Gillian Flynn and Hilary Davidson and Krist Belcamino and so many more that they’re no longer mainstream tropes.
While I still feel that there’s no such thing as appropriation of voice and writers certainly have the license to create anything from any point of view they want I’m still unlikely to pick up a book with a young female narrator written by a middle-aged man. It kind of feels like a missionary situation these days.
* Kinsella is probably best known outside of Canada for writing the novel, Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa which was turned into the movie Field of Dreams.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A quote and a song

I'm reading a forgotten novel from 1936 that I'm enjoying the hell out of (but I'm not naming because I hope to write about it when I finish). I came across a passage that seemed particularly modern, not only for the implication but the choice of words. 

"Maybe sometimes people wonder why it is the law don't stamp out crime overnight. The cops know the street address of all the important criminals in any town and know enough to send 'em to the pen. But they don't do nothin' except talk to newspaper boys about startin' a war on crime. That's because one big crook don't bother with another big crook unless the other one is musclin' in on his racket."
34 years later, during his 1970 State of the Union Address, Richard Nixon would talk about starting a war on crime to a national audience:

We have heard a great deal of overblown rhetoric during the 60s in which the word "war" has perhaps too often been used--the war on poverty, the war on disease, the war on hunger. But if there is one area where the word "war" is appropriate it is in the fight against crime. We must declare and win the war against the criminal elements which increasingly threaten our cities, our homes, and our lives.
And to this day the War on Drugs continues. One critic of the War on Drugs is David Simon and The Wire is largely about the futility of fighting it and the importance of the illusion of making progress over actual progress.

Anyway, interesting line.

Here's a song. "Suicide Sal" by Karen Jonas

And finally, some good reads:

-"This is the best post-apocalyptic cat detective novel you'll read all year"

-"I didn’t like American Sniper (more on that later), but it did get me thinking about all those war films I watched on Sunday nights and the question of what makes a particular war film, for want of a better way of expressing it ‘good’ or ‘bad’."

-"McKees Rocks is an old mill town, the kind of place that lost jobs when all the steel mills moved away. I knew a guy, years ago, who used to score blow in an old house near a tattoo parlor, down by the river. I think the tattoo parlor is still there. I don’t know what happened to the guy who used to do blow — maybe dead, maybe quit, maybe a lawyer, maybe still at home on his mom’s couch. All those people I used to do drugs with when I was a kid and young man seem like characters I know from books, from movies, all of them stuck in time. It’s hard to imagine someone who snorted coke in a bathroom stall with a Budweiser bottle balanced perfectly on his head ever growing up, let alone old, but I was there too, waiting for my line.

The world forgives worse.

But then, other times, the world doesn’t forgive anything at all."

-"Fair warning, though: a lot of jokes won't make sense to you if you have no affiliation or understanding of black culture. But that's okay! King of The Hill was, like, the 8th whitest show in history and I've still seen every episode. Getting out of your comfort zone is good."

-"My father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, grew up in a log cabin in Taylorsville, Ky. The house had 12-inch-thick walls with gun ports to defend against attackers: first Indians, then soldiers during the Civil War. At 12, Dad wrote a novel of the Old West. He taught himself to type with the Columbus method — find it and land on it — using one finger on his left hand and two fingers on his right. Dad typed swiftly and with great passion. In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than 400 books. Two were science fiction and 24 were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using 17 pseudonyms."

-"Since the late 1960s, Wurlitzer has been a screenwriter. If you've seen Two-Lane Blacktop or Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid or Walker, you've seen his work. None of the films he wrote raked in box-office millions, and many screenplays he's written have gone unproduced. But he enjoys a reputation that makes people speak about him in superlatives—that he's one of a kind, that he's his own genre, that there's no one, no one, quite like him. His work makes people want to mount retrospectives on both coasts."

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Author Etiquette on Twitter

by Kristi Belcamino

Blatantly ripping off Holly West and Steve Weddle's idea of "I posed a question on Facebook ..."

My question was this: What do you all think about someone who sends out an automatic direct message on Twitter when you follow them? AND does it matter what the message says? For instance, if it says, "Hey, you can find me on Facebook or Goodreads here ..." is that different than "Check out my Amazon page ..."

For the record, I do not send out direct messages on Twitter when people follow me. I feel harsh unfollowing someone the minute I get one of these messages, but have to admit I am tempted ... What do you think?

The reason I don't direct message after a follow is this: my understanding of promoting yourself as an author on social media means that the majority of your posts/tweets are not about selling your book. That you are essentially selling yourself and if people connect with you, then they might buy your book. It is about forging relationships and connecting with others and sometimes the bonus is that they want to check out your writing, as well. 

This "understanding" allows me to have fun on social media instead of feeling like a huckster. If I felt like a huckster, I don't think I could do it. I guess I feel like a heel and schmuck to unfollow a really interesting NYT bestselling author simply because she direct messaged me on FB where I could find her on Facebook and Goodreads. She didn't direct me to her books, not exactly.

So, back to the question and some of the responses I received. I received so many I wish I could quote from each one, but here is a sampling of what I saw.

The majority of people felt one of two ways - either the direct messages were completely useless or extremely annoying and offensive.

While I tend to bristle at direct messages after I follow someone, the only message I wouldn't take offense to is from my fellow HarperCollins author, Tonya Kappes, who is a lovely and genuine and sweet person. She said this:

"I have a direct message that says "thank you for joining my limb on the twitter tree" just bc I'm southern and we have a thank you for everything...even when someone runs over you  BUT I hate and immediately unfollow people who tell me to buy their book or follow them on other social media sites. I think it's rude."

Erin Mitchell who is my guru on all things authors should and shouldn't do, said this when asked whether the content of the message makes a difference. For instance, I wouldn't be offended or unfollow Tonya if she sent the message from her comment above, so to me, that is a lot different than someone direct message me a link to their book on Amazon.

"Yes, content matters," said Mitchell, "but my regard for someone plummets when they do it regardless. And I live in the south. For me, it just creates work.

The majority of the commenters had strong feelings against these auto direct messages.

"Hate it," wrote Mary Sutton. "I don't know if I've ever unfollowed someone, but I've been tempted. And if the rest of their tweets are just promo, they're gone."

"It feels like spam to me and I immediately unfollow," said Jody Casella.

Shenya Galyan said this: "I hate the automated messages, no matter what they say. Even if it's a thanks, it's not, really, because it's automated. It's a meaningless thanks. Now, if it's obvious that someone responds to my follow with a *real*, intentional thanks, then I love it. Then, and only then, it's communication and not auto-respond detritus."

"Not down with this. I think it comes off like robo-sales," said Dan Malmon from Crimespree Magazine.

"I hate it all," wrote Joseph D'Agnese. "How professional can you possibly look carrying a billboard ad on your fucking forehead?"

Joelle Charbonneau, said she unfollows someone the minute they send a direct message. 

"It means the conversation they want to have is about me buying something instead of a mutual back and forth that might include me learning more about their work," she said. "That kind of message signals a one way street that I'm not interested in traveling! (That probably sounds harsh, but after getting dozens and dozens of those messages I am still wondering why anyone thinks they are a good idea.)"

"It's Spammish and unprofessional," said Celeste Ward.

"Don't do it," said Steve McPherson.

My favorite anti-direct message comment came from the hilarious and talented  Carol Tokar Pavliska:

"It's the most disappointing thing ever! You see someone has left you a message and it holds all the promise of something shiny and new and possibly illicit and then it's just an auto response. Ruins my day."

Several people weren't bothered by the direct messages and simply didn't pay any attention to them.

Eleanor Cawood Jones said she ignores and erases all direct messages saying there just isn't time to deal with something like that.

"They don't bother me because I totally ignore them," said Lori Duffy Foster.

A few people defended authors who are desperately trying to boost book sales, in essence saying "Hey, we're all in this together, so let us be supportive and forgiving of an author's efforts to make it in this cut-throat world."

For instance, Mike Monson said, "I don't do it because it does seem unnecessary, but if someone does it to me I just delete and ignore, unless there is something in their message that makes their stuff seem particularly interesting. I mean, we are all just trying to get readers, it's okay."

And Melissa Olson added, "I loathe this practice. I've been making an effort to follow more people on Twitter lately (to build my own numbers), and I'm seeing a lot of these auto replies. There are two variations: either "hey, thanks for following me, I really appreciate it" or "Hey, please follow me on Facebook and/or buy my books on Amazon, etc". 
But here's the thing: saying you appreciate the follow feels pretty disingenuous when you and I both know you set an automatic response to say it for you. And asking me to do more things for you is beyond tacky. Following someone on Twitter is like saying "hey, I'm mildly interested in what you're about, and I'd like to learn more." To follow that up with "Hey, OMG, here are more things you can do to help me out" is just plain crappy manners.

"I should add, though, that while it annoys me, I don't unfollow people for doing it, because like Mike said, we're all trying our own ways to use this thing for business."

Julie Oest was one of the few commenters who said it's fine and obviously has more tolerance than most of us, including me! Good for you, Julie!

"It doesn't matter to me," she wrote. "If I'm following an author I'm doing so because I already enjoy their books. One automated message isn't going to make me stop wanting to know about upcoming releases and specials. I think people are too easily annoyed or offended nowadays. When something has a simple fix (delete it) then just do it and go on with life."

The outpouring was awesome so thanks to everyone who took the time to weigh in. After reading all the comments, I've come to this conclusion: Sending someone a direct message telling them to buy your book or follow you on other social media is at best, useless, and at worst, a way to make someone not only unfollow you, but hate you, as well. In other words, it appears to do more harm than good.

I'd say skip it. 

I'll leave you with Do Some Damage Steve Weddle's comment in the form of a picture!